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Review: SHOWstudio's Fashion Revolution
by T.S.J.| 2009
Until recently I was working as a Gallery Assistant at Somerset House Embankment Galleries for the exhibition SHOWstudio: Fashion Revolution. For those who may not know, SHOWstudio is a website mostly presenting fashion media and projects. When the curator Claire Catterall first led us through the exhibition, I was intrigued by most of the projects. One main part of the job was invigilation, and thus I was forced to spend quite a lot of time with the projects and, subsequently, I began to see issues with several of them.
I wondered: do we experience fashion, or specifically high fashion, in the same sense as we do graphic design, advertising, industrial design, music, dance, theatre, or even sometimes contemporary art? High fashion is restricted to the select few of the industry—the important and successful designers, photographers, stylists, editors, etc. The website of SHOWstudio and the exhibition allow those who are not in the inner circles of the industry to look into the process of fashion, especially photoshoots, and interact with models. We see more, yes, but still only as outsiders. A coworker challenged me as to how I would curate and present the exhibition myself. Honestly I am not quite sure, for elitism and pretentiousness are qualities inherent to the industry.
The first project is an infinity room of mirrors with an entrance and an exit—slightly disorientating at first, and perhaps captivating for people to (vainly) see themselves reflected multiple times (including myself), but there have been more interesting infinity rooms, such as the work of the artist Yayoi Kusama. The context of the room to introduce the exhibition is fitting, though, because it recalls the entrance lobby of SHOWstudio.com's office in Clerkenwell area of London. The presence of an infinity room in an office building may have been pleasantly surprising, but I also question its original existence at the office. Supposedly there were webcams to capture the incoming visitors and their responses. Is this to question issues of self-image or is it to give the employees of SHOWstudio.com a laugh?
Giant Naomi Campbell staggered statues are next. This I love—visually engaging and impressive-looking, perhaps a Greek sculpture reference. But then I learn that people are meant to draw and write on a template tablet that is then projected onto the statue; in addition, microphones in the vicinity broadcast people's responses onto the website. An interesting idea meant to invite the global Internet audience as well as gallery visitors to share an opinion... about Naomi, models, fashion, size 0 debate, whatever. Instead, people just write their names or initials like graffiti, draw a few random unsightly lines or circles, or take photos—some with flash or posing alongside the statue whilst touching it (last two are definite no-no's). I think I would have preferred the statues be plain and static, although the failure of the project is not the fault of SHOWstudio or Somerset House but the general public, ha!
Next, the "Process" section of the exhibition: an Alexander McQueen video transforming a bridegroom into a bride. Inspiring perhaps to the general one-time visitor, but the music is annoyingly repetitive to the invigilator, and the blood tears and being tied up—obvious. All the subsequent projects in this section I find to be shallow and inconsequential after overexposure. I donít care about the animation of the garments made out of wrappers (actual garments would have been better); nor do I care about "important" and famous fashion people being confronted with their own image (David Weightman project), and I donít care to listen to the models' voice messages.
In the "Performance" section, Banquet is interesting though reinforcing the voyeur role of the gallery visitor, to my chagrin—I don't want to see videos of people's food or what they say, I want to be there. Sittings I also find problematic over time. Simon Foxton, stylist, has a live male model sitting in the exhibition wearing designer labels, and there is a phone to call if one wishes to chat with the model. There is too much fixation on models in this exhibition. At first I thought it was mere eye candy, but the novelty wears off. I wonder, though, what if it was just a random person—a Joe Bloggs, if you will—sitting there wearing designer labels (perhaps using bigger sizes): would that make the project any more or less interesting?
More Beautiful Women is more fixation on models, and only worth mentioning due to the blatant Warhol reference; although over time I do enjoy observing the different viewer reactions. Other projects do not stand the test of time and my interest in them wanes. Sleep provides some beautiful impressionistic images, but overall is inconsistent as others are boring. Dress Me Up, Dress Me Down is gimmicky. In the attempt to provide interactivity for the visitors, simplistic (though perhaps complex in programming) digital projects are a majority of the exhibition—click here, click there. The content and the interface are shallow. For example, in one project you use your finger on a touch-screen to rotate an unclear digital bust to see it in different angles; in another you rub you fingers on the screen to try and reveal a garment underneath.
The Live Studio involves a photographic studio where Nick Knight, photographer and director of SHOWstudio, holds actual photoshoots for the audience to watch. Itís a much bolder project than the others of the "Performance" section, although I feel that we are still not experiencing fashion of the high kind, we are just observing it. By the way, photoshoots are actually quite slow... The unglamorous long periods of inactivity does not deter the fashion fanatics, however; some groups even take turns staking a spot in front of the one-way glass.
I find the next section of the exhibition to be the least effective: "Participation." As I stated above, I feel that the audiences are merely spectators. The brochure claims that SHOWstudio seeks to invite its audience "in," but to me it's more of a tease. It claims that SHOWstudio gives the audience a "voice" and opens the world of high fashion image-making to everyone. It does not. In what way is the viewer experiencing fashion in The Sound of Clothes: Synaesthesia (a project in which you hover the mouse over certain parts of an image of a garment and different music pieces play)? You, in the general sense, do not wear the garment. I certainly do not feel that I experience the music. An interesting concept to describe fashion through music, but the once again gimmicky roller-ball mouse interface is disappointing. An idea comes to my mind of a concert with a full orchestra involving a catwalk show with these garments—that, I may enjoy more. Forget-Me-Not—adorable gold pagoda-like structure and I very much appreciate the design of the wallpaper by illustrator Julie Verhoeven. However, the project is not entirely successful, as none of the visitors that I witness know what to do with the screen interface; also, how is it fashion? For me, seeing borders of the wallpaper design in the screen was a distraction and it was far too small. If the wallpaper occupied an entire large room, and if the interface were an entire wall that repeats the pattern so it's seemingly never-ending—that would be more experiential. The other projects, like many mentioned above, bore me after overexposure. Casting does involve the audience through a virtual model casting session (the videos then post onto the website), although I wonder if SHOWstudio would really cast "regular" people as models or would they end up picking people who are "model-like"—attractive, thin, and tall? I have a cynical inkling that they may be, again, having a laugh. I remain to be convinced otherwise.
Last but not least: the fashion films. I liked most of them, especially Fantasia, Make Up Your Mind, and Gareth Pugh A/W 09-10; I could watch the latter two over and over (and I do). One interesting point for me about Make Up Your Mind is that they cast two female dancers as opposed to models. I find their bodies to be far more beautiful, not to mention more healthy and athletic. The fashion film is an interesting development for fashion in both concept and aesthetic; I await to see how this medium will grow.
Were the problems I found with the projects due to their inherent weaknesses or just because I was overexposed? The invigilator inevitably has a different experience with an exhibition than those who planned it or a general visitor. Although my bitchin' of the exhibition ends here, there are few other thoughts that cross my mind during the long hours where I wait not-too-patiently to pounce on the next person who uses flash photography. I think about our infatuation with models, celebrities, and other "stars." What is it about the exposure of media that attracts us so? Do we all secretly wish to attain that sense of imposed-perfection and attention? What is the biological reason? Can I equate it to the phenomena of the alpha male lion, or the peacockís feathers?
High fashion reaches very few people directly, and though SHOWstudio.com and its exhibition at Somerset House have opened the processes to be viewed, it is simply that: viewed, not experienced. The interventions (i.e. "real" person instead of a model) I have suggested may only still reach a minor audience. If to experience fashion is to either wear it or interact firsthand with its different facets as inner industry personnel, then the broadest reach of fashion is through high street fashion (e.g. Gap, H&M). But this is problematic because we all know high street is considered "low end"; it makes the public feel excluded and second-rate. This fuels consumption desires and media-affected self-esteems. What many strive for—the designer style—remains illusive. Because most people have to wear clothing, fashion is inescapable. It has one of the widest reaches within the arts to the public, and yet I feel that it also takes the least responsibility for its influence. The exclusive and hierarchical nature of the industry is self-propagating, and this nature determines who can or cannot experience high fashion and its processes. SHOWstudio attempts to invite the masses in; unfortunately it only paradoxically further reminds us of high fashionís elusiveness.
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